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May birds

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

Birdsong in May is still at its most intense, though it can be slackening off at the end of the month. Males sing most frequently - and loudest - when they are setting up territories and trying to attract a mate: at this time they have to project their song over a long distance to ward off rivals. Once territories are established and pairs formed, singing is only required to maintain existing territory boundaries. Later still when there are young to feed there is less time to sing.

In May some bird species - particularly overwintering natives - are already reaching this last stage, but others - among them new migrants - are still in the courtship phase. But provided the weather is fine the result is still layers of birdsong, both by day and (particularly) in the early evening. The best concentrations tend to be in suburban parks, woodland and wildlife reserves, as well as scrubby areas in the country: on farmland it is really evident how modern agricultural methods reduce avian populations. If you don't already know your birdsong, this is frustrating month to try and identify what birds are singing, however, because foliage now hides them from view.

If you can get up early, this is also a good month to hear the dawn chorus. Starlings apparently start singing first, in the pre-dawn, and then come blackbirds, wrens and robins. Chaffinch and blackcap and others often don't start until it is full light. Once it is light enough to see food, there is then a "breakfast gap" followed by another burst of chorus.

One bird that is very prominent all month, both in sound and visually, is the blackbird, whose lovely melifluous song is sung by males perched high on trees and rooftops. They can sing at any time of day but there seems to be a kind of "blackbird time" at about 3-4pm when they pipe up, their unhurried song conveying the impression that the day's labour is over and it is time to relax. They dominate the soundscape on the long light evenings, particularly in villages or suburban areas but also sometimes in woods, where you can hear overlapping layers of blackbird song. Very occasionally towards dusk they resort to tup-tup-tupping competitions instead (or these may be tactics to scare off potential predators from their young). Keeping them company is the song thrush, which is heard at dusk throughout the month, and usually once or twice earlier in the day.

The cascading song of the chaffinch is also common throughout May. It lays its eggs during the month so the song is less intense towards the end, but still fairly regularly heard. It is worth checking that what you think is a chaffinch is not a willow warbler, however, as their song sounds quite similar to the casual ear. Willow warblers sing a descending scale but without the flourish at the end that the chaffinch has. They are found in wilder places - scrubby downland, low woodland - rather than in farmland, though they now seem to be quite rare in the south east of England.

Chaffinches 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, though it usually seems to be the chaffinch. Both can engage in duels with other birds where they swop "tseeps" for prolonged periods. The ponderous song of the chiffchaff (which sounds like its name) also continues to be heard most days throughout the month, though it is much less frequent than it was in early April, when they were newly arrived from their migration and competing for territory.

Lots of other birds that were vociferous earlier in the spring are now piping down. Blue tits and great tits are occasionally heard in early May, but blue tits have generally stopped singing entirely by the middle of the month, while great tits only make the occasional brief outbursts - and some years not even that. Both species now have young, timing them to coincide with the peak in caterpillar numbers in the second half of May. Being in pair bonds, they do not even make the cheerful contact calls they make the rest of the year when feeding in groups.

Robins also time their young to coincide with the caterpillar peak, so their song is also much less common in May, though they can sometimes be heard singing right to the end of the month, particularly at dusk - often in short bursts as if they have no time for more developed songs. The loud trilling outbursts of wrens are heard most days but are no longer as common as they were in early April. Throughout the month you can hear the "laugh" (technically known as a yaffle) of the green woodpecker but the drumming of the greater spotted woodpecker is usually only heard in the first week or so of the month, if that. The same is true of the song of the mistle thrush, which sounds distant even when it is not, and the various calls of nuthatches. Very occasionally on a wood edge you might hear the shy piping of a bullfinch, but these are now very rare birds.

Dunnocks also quieten down and focus on raising their young in May, though they can occasionally be heard (and seen) singing right to the end of the month. Indeed, there may even be a renewed flurry of song around this time, perhaps because these notoriously promiscuous birds are having a second go at breeding. Their squeaky supermarket trolley song sounds similar to that of the blackcap, but the latter is louder, more confident and starts with mumbling notes: it can be heard throughout the month.

Just to make life confusing, the whitethroat, a summer visitor active throughout the month in shrubby territory and hedgerows between open fields, also has a similar song, albeit much shorter than the blackcap's and more scratchy. It has only just arrived in May and so is very vocal. It has a display flight where it flies up into the air and lands again. There is also the garden warbler, whose song is like a speeded-up, perhaps even demented, version of the blackcap's but with some scratchy notes like the whitethroat. They are not the commonest of birds, remaining hidden in trees and scrub. If you catch sight of one you might mistake it for a chiffchaff, as they are quite nondescript in appearance, with a lighter belly. Despite their name they are not a garden bird.

Dunnock nests are favourite targets for the parasitic cuckoo to lay its eggs. Sadly these birds are in major decline, but you can still hear them occasionally in May (usually, it seems, a long way away). Both the New Forest and the area around Haslemere have been reported as good locations for them (and in the north west of Scotland they are apparently common).

Other summer visitors are more visible (though worryingly less common than they used to be, with a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years and a catastrophic drop in 2018). One is the swallow, a cheering sight as it swoops past you catching insects - or is it a house martin? Both birds have white bellies and both fly pretty fast, making identification hard. Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish them is that swallows quite often fly very low - sometimes only half a metre above the ground - turning sharply and unexpectedly like a jet fighter and even dipping into ponds to drink while on the wing. They also have a long forked tail and a dark throat, if you ever get that good a look at them.

House martins, by contrast, are more sociable, nearly always appearing in chattering groups, and nearly always seen near buildings, where they nest in colonies. They tend to fly at rooftop height, in a sort of "flap flap glide" flight rather than the smooth swoop of the swallow. They have a stubbier tail and a white patch on their rumps (the bottom of their back). The two species also have different calls - the house martin's having a staccato rasping quality and the swallow sounding like a squeaky bath toy being rapidly pressed.

Often lumped together with these two, but from an entirely different family of birds, is the swift, which has distinctive swept-back wings and entirely dark plumage. They generally are seen high in the sky, particularly over ancient towns with convenient church towers to nest in, but can sometimes come quite close to the ground in pursuit of food. Their distinctive screaming call is often what alerts you to their presence. They spiral upwards into the sky at night to sleep on the wing and even mate in the air: the only time they ever land is to raise young. Sadly, like swallows and house martins they have shown sharp declines in numbers in recent years.

Near houses you can hear the twittering of sparrows, once very common and now maybe making a bit of a comeback. Greenfinches are also almost exclusively found near habitation, where the males are easy to see as they sit on high perches making their "squeezh" of a mating call. Lone goldfinches sing from similar positions, and also twitter excitedly as they fly past in small groups, though just occasionally what you think is goldfinch song turns out to be swallows chattering as they fly overhead.

Villages and more rural suburbs are also where you hear the cooing of collared doves - "hoo-hooo hoo": look for them on chimney pots - or the "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" of the wood pigeon. The latter can also be heard in the countryside, and both birds sing throughout May. A bit less common and much more inconspicuous is the repeated throaty "woo" of the stock dove, more of a woodland bird.

In fields with hedgerows listen out for the quiet but penetrating song of the yellowhammer, which is a rapid series of notes a little bit like a blue tit's mating call, followed by a long drawn out "eee" - but the bird often leaves out the "eee". (One can get quite tense wondering if the wretched thing is going to finish the phrase or not!). As you might expect, yellowhammers have lovely bright yellow plumage on their heads and breasts, and they usually perch prominently on a bush. But they are nonetheless remarkably difficult to spot.

Over downland and arable fields skylarks trill invisibly overhead, and on wilder downs you can sometimes see or hear meadow pipits, with their accelerating trill and parachuting display (that is, they fly up and then glide downwards). In coastal scrub and downland you may just hear stonechats, with their frequent "tchack" calls, and red-breasted linnets, who have a rapid twittering song a bit like that of the lark. On shingle beaches (eg the area behind the beach at Cuckmere Haven) look out for well-camouflaged ringed plovers, who nest in such places and give their location away with a thin piping call.

In reed beds and reed-filled ditches you may hear the scolding, rhythmical song of reed warbler, another favourite of the cuckoo. The more rambling and scratchy song of the sedge warbler is a lot rarer and usually comes from a bush near marshland. If you are near Romney Marsh, however, what you think may be either of these birds singing might in fact be a marsh frog, an invasive species which unlike our native frogs has a loud croak that can sound somewhat bird-like.

More May pages:


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